The environmental movement isn’t resting on its laurels, even after scoring a big win with the defeat of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Greens are hard at work on their next battles, the biggest of which revolve around efforts to severely restrict production of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas.
Right now, major environmental groups say they’re focusing on getting a strong climate change agreement at the coming United Nations meeting in Paris and defending President Obama’s climate rules for power plants.
But the biggest fights to come will be squarely rooted in the supply side of the fossil fuel industry, a concept popularly known as “keep it in the ground.”
“Most of the work on climate and energy over the past several decades has been on the demand side of the equation, making cars and trucks more clean, fighting pollution coming out of smokestacks,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.
“And now, there will be an expanded fight to complement that on the supply side, to prevent the extraction of fossil fuels right from the start.”
That includes trying to shut down coal mines and crack down on hydraulic fracturing, along with stopping the transportation of fossil fuels in oil trains, pipelines and coal export terminals.
Those efforts have got a few big, public boosts in recent weeks.
During the same week when Obama rejected Keystone, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other Democrats introduced a bill to stop any future leases for fossil fuel drilling on federal land and water.
The effort has arisen now because the Obama administration is considering which offshore areas to make available for oil and gas drilling between 2017 and 2022. Among the areas under consideration — to the consternation of greens — are the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.
But environmentalists take heart from the fact that Obama aligned himself so strongly with the movement’s worldview in his Nov. 6 speech rejecting Keystone.
“Ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky,” the president said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council recognizes that the Sanders-backed bill is unlikely to become law. But David Goldston, the group’s top lobbyist, said focusing on land and offshore areas controlled by the federal government makes strategic sense.
“Those are the areas obviously most susceptible to federal policy, and where the public has the most direct, immediate stake,” Goldston said.
But the “keep it in the ground” strategy goes much further. It stretches into local fights, over small drilling wells, coal mines and infrastructure.
“If you pick a new fossil fuel infrastructure project, almost any one across the country, there is a campaign going on against it,” Brune said.
Adam Rome, an environmental history professor at the University of Delaware, said Obama’s invocation of the efforts to restrict fossil fuel production should give succor to the movement.
“I do think that that’s an area where the environmental movement, now that the door’s open, can keep pressing, keep finding a number of ways, whether it’s protests, whether it’s demanding changes in public land policy, whether it’s investor action or stock overseer action,” he said.
To the oil industry, restricting oil and gas drilling is not the answer. Instead, groups like the American Petroleum Institute (API) think innovation and technology are the keys to fighting climate change.
“It may be an inconvenient truth for ‘leave it in the ground’ activists, but fossil fuels and environmental progress are not, and never have been, mutually exclusive,” Jack Gerard, API’s president, told reporters this week.
“The fact is energy development has played and will continue to play a leading role in making the United States the world leader in emissions reductions,” he said.
A key lesson from Keystone that activists are likely to incorporate into future fights is the importance of opening multiple fronts.
Keystone was unique in that it galvanized such a large swath of the environmental movement and grew its ranks considerably, bringing in people who do not consider themselves activists.
“Especially when you’re trying to make fundamental changes in policy, you’re always going to need that full suite,” said Goldston. “The movement always moved along these different axes and needs to continue to do so.”
Rome said that if greens want to be successful in future major battles, they must demonstrate that climate change isn’t only something traditional environmentalists need to care about.
“If the environmental movement is going to achieve its goals, it has to make climate change much bigger than an environmental issue,” he said.
Another key lesson is that Americans are probably more likely to join a fight if it is against something relatively concrete, like a steel pipe. Brune said similar objects are probably going to be central again.
“I think what will emerge are iconic fights against projects that are egregious,” he said.